An allergy to dust can lead to year-round allergy symptoms such as sneezing and a runny nose. Dust that is visible to the human eye contains the bodies of dead dust mites. Dust mites are microscopic and difficult to see with the naked eye. They can live on bedding, mattresses, upholstered furniture, carpets, and curtains, where they feed on the flakes of skin shed by people and their pets. Dust mites thrive in warm, humid environments. An allergy to dust can develop when your immune system labels dust mite proteins as harmful to the body.
What Causes Dust Allergies?
Dust allergies are most often — but not exclusively — caused by dust mites, tiny microscopic insects that live in our homes. They are so small that they cannot be seen by the naked eye. A house doesn’t have to show visible signs of dust for dust mites to be present and cause an allergic reaction.
Dust mites are related to ticks and spiders and thrive in warm, humid environments. As a result, they often die off when humidity levels drop. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), dust mites prefer warmer temperatures, over 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with the humidity at least 75 to 80%. Dust mites are rarely found in drier climates.
Dust mites eat the skin cells that people shed. On average, a person sheds about one and a half grams of skin a day. As a result, dust mites are commonly found in bedding, furniture, and carpets. These everyday household items provide an ideal place for dust mites to live. Unfortunately, vacuuming and dusting can actually aggravate an individual’s allergies because those activities stir up dust mites, making them easier to inhale. People who are allergic, react to both the mites themselves and their waste, both of which they can inhale.
Signs and Symptoms of a Dust Allergy
About 20 million Americans live with an allergy to dust mites. The most common dust mite allergy symptoms are quite similar to those associated with an allergy to pollen. They include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy, red, or watery eyes
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy nose, roof of mouth, or throat
- Postnasal drip
- Facial pressure and pain
- Swollen, blue-colored skin under the eyes
- In a child, frequent upward rubbing of the nose
For someone with asthma, an allergy to dust mites may also lead to the following:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness or pain
- An audible whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling
- Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing
- Bouts of coughing or wheezing that are worsened by a respiratory virus such as a cold or flu
These symptoms will differ from person to person, and they can also vary in terms of severity. Some people may only experience an occasional runny nose and sneezing because of dust mites. Someone else may develop a more chronic condition that leads them to an ongoing cough or congestion, or even a more serious issue, such as an asthma attack.
Are Dust Mites the Only Cause of Dust Allergies?
No. Other dust allergy triggers include:
- Cockroaches: These pests are found in many types of buildings and neighborhoods. Household dust can contain tiny particles from roaches that can also cause an allergic reaction.
- Mold: There are many types of mold, only some of which are visible to people. Spores from mold can become airborne and, as a result, be inhaled, triggering an allergic reaction. Mold is found both in homes and the natural world. It is especially common indoors in rooms that contain moisture such as bathrooms or kitchens.
- Pollen: The pollen from trees, grasses, weeds, and flowers is commonly found within household dust. People who are allergic to pollen may only be allergic to the pollen of a specific weed or flower.
- Animal hair, fur, and feathers: There are many parts of an animal or pet that can cause an allergic reaction. Some people may be allergic to the dander (skin flakes) of cats or dogs. Someone else may be allergic to a bird’s feathers. Even a pet’s urine or saliva may cause someone to have an allergic reaction when combined with dust.
What are Common Treatments for Dust Allergies?
If a doctor suspects someone has a dust allergy, they may suggest an allergy skin test or a blood test. The allergy skin test involves a doctor pricking the skin and applying a tiny amount of dust mite extract to the site. If an individual has an allergy to dust mites, their skin will become itchy and red. A blood test looks for certain antibodies that can indicate a dust mite allergy.
Once a doctor has confirmed that their patient is allergic to dust mites, they may prescribe several medications to help alleviate their symptoms. Over-the-counter options include:
- Antihistamines: Help to relieve itching, sneezing, and watery eyes
- Decongestants: Work to ease or unclog a stuffy nose
- Nasal steroids: Aid in reducing swelling in the nose to improve breathing
- Leukotriene modifiers: Serve to block certain chemicals in the immune system
Allergy shots or oral pills (both forms of immunotherapy) can also help to train the immune system to not react to the allergen.
How to Control Dust Allergies At Home?
While medications and immunotherapy can help a person manage or alleviate the symptoms of a dust mite allergy, it is also important to take preventative measures within the home to help reduce the amount of dust on surfaces and in the air. Some recommendations are to include:
- Avoid carpeting. Where possible, it is better to have wood flooring, especially in bedrooms, in order to reduce dust.
- Use mite-proof mattress and pillow covers. These fabric coverings stop mites from gathering in the mattress and pillows.
- Switch to polyester-filled pillows. Feather pillows can harbor dust mites.
- Wash bed linens in hot water regularly. Water over 130 degrees Fahrenheit kills dust mites, as does drying them in a hot dryer.
- Clean floors with a wet mop. This helps to avoid stirring up dust.
- Use HEPA filters in HVAC units and vacuums. High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters trap dust mites. The HVAC filter should have a MERV rating of 11-13 and be replaced every three months.
- Switch out drapes for roll-up window shades. If this isn’t possible, wash your curtains seasonally.
- When dusting, use a damp cloth. Dry dusting causes dust particles to be moved around.
- Wash or freeze stuffed animals and soft toys. Doing this helps to kill dust mites collected on their surface.
- Use a dehumidifier or air conditioner. This reduces the humidity in a home. Since dust mites thrive in humid environments and can’t live in an environment where the humidity is 50% or less, this may also reduce their presence.
- Freezing non-washable bedding overnight to kill dust mites.
- Keep pets out of the bedroom of the allergic person. If the dust allergy is caused by a pet, this will help reduce allergic triggers.
These strategies, plus treatment from a medical professional, may be able to help individuals better manage their dust allergy long-term.
Dust Allergy Testing and Treatment
If over-the-counter medications and the above steps cannot provide enough relief, additional treatment may be needed. The Columbia Allergy team can provide testing to confirm an allergy to dust mites.
Treatment options for a dust allergy include subcutaneous immunotherapy (allergy shots) or sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT). Both treatments desensitize the immune system to reduce the reaction to the dust mite protein. You may also be a candidate for our intralymphatic immunotherapy (ILIT) treatment in Fremont, California that can provide faster results!